Al Qaeda and its components now appear to have fully embraced a strategy that before they had only toyed with–directing attacks against fellow Muslims in the course of the terrorist group’s jihad. We have seen al Qaeda kill hundreds of Muslims in its pursuit of wreaking havoc on the world before, such as in 1998’s east Africa-embassy bombings, and more recently in last year’s bombings in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia. Now al Qaeda and its affiliate groups are openly attacking Muslim targets, as last weekend’s bombings in Iraq at the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic party demonstrate. Muslims, in al Qaeda’s eyes, are no longer a protected class.
Islam distinguishes between an external war between Muslims and non-Muslims and an internal war among Muslims in concept and in name, giving the latter conflict an entirely separate word in Arabic, fitna
. As fitna
is heavily discouraged in Islam, an Islamic terrorist group carrying out attacks against fellow Muslims is likely to cause some confusion for al Qaeda’s potential and current followers. Since al Qaeda’s existence depends on public support, the terrorist group must rationalize why it is waging this fitna
and why Muslims are being targeted.
Previously, al Qaeda’s rhetoric in justifying attacks in which Muslims were killed was to maintain that they were casualties in the pursuit of a greater cause, and that any Muslim killed in such an attack would become a martyr and therefore go to heaven. However, Muslims now are no longer collateral damage but instead the actual targets, a tactic no doubt very puzzling to many Muslims. To compensate for this dissonance, al Qaeda has promptly shifted its rhetoric to address this issue.
In its tradition of masquerading as an Islamic authority, al Qaeda has begun to brand Muslims working with anti-al Qaeda interests as traitors to Islam. An influential al Qaeda-affiliated bulletin board published a piece at the end of January, entitled “A warning to the mujahadeen fighting in Iraq, with regard to the spy Mahmoud Kul Aghasi, Abu Al-Qaqa.” The posting is designed to be helpful to those terrorists fighting in Iraq in determining if spies are among them and working against them. The letter is signed, “The Informational Bureau for Aiding the Iraqi people, the Center for Mujahideen Services.”
As is typical of al Qaeda’s rhetoric, the letter begins by defining words it wishes to appropriate in a jihadist context and provides an introduction to “treason,” as well as how to deal with traitors and spies. The author emphasizes that spies are even more dangerous than “infidels,” because spies destruct Islamic society from within. The posting then proceeds to tell the story of two spies who caused great harm to the mujahadeen.
One of the spies, Abu Al-Qaqa, named in the title of the posting, is described as a Kurd of Syrian origin, invoking the Kurds who were murdered on February 1 in the twin suicide attacks in Iraq. After studying in the Sharia College at the University of Damascus, Abu Al-Qaqa, we learn, went on to the army and served under Asef Shawkat, a prominent security figure in Syria, and has been a subordinate to him ever since, serving the Syrian intelligence apparatus.
The letter maintains that after the “blessed 9/11 events,” Abu Al-Qaqa exploited the occupation of Afghanistan and the general anti-American atmosphere, and claimed that he had just returned from fighting in Afghanistan after the downfall of Kabul. He presented himself as a “Jihadi Salafi,” and would show films glorifying Osama bin Laden and the fighters in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and lecture about jihad and the love of death. He thereby managed to assemble a group of followers, which he also trained with weapons, but was all the while working for the Syrian security apparatus. He passed the names of his followers on to the Syrians, resulting in “the arrest of hundreds of ardent, sincere young people.” The letter notes significantly that Abu Al-Qaqa also led to the arrest of mujahadeen passing through Syria on their way to fight in Iraq. The mujahadeen would come in order to meet him, whereupon “Allah’s enemy would not tarry, and would rush to tell on them and have them arrested.”
While no group has yet claimed official responsibility for the attacks, it seems likely that the Kurdish political parties targeted in these recent strikes were attacked for their affiliation with the United States (which would therefore make them traitorous by al Qaeda’s standards). The terrorist group is issuing a disturbing ultimatum to Muslims around the world; namely, to cease any efforts to help or work with those who are dismantling al Qaeda, upon penalty of death. At the end of the biography of Abu Al-Qaqa is a fatwa justifying his murder as a traitor. The letter then demands, “we call upon our mujahadeen brothers in Syria, in general, and spread throughout our dear Iraq, in particular, to take care of this heretic and to slaughter him as they would slaughter a sheep.”
Muslim support in the war on terror is indispensable and necessary. Only Muslims are capable of religiously delegitimizing al Qaeda and its activities, and now the war has spread to attack them specifically. As a result of this new strategy of terrorist groups, and in order to maintain our partnership in the war on terror with Muslims around the globe, we must offer further protection to our allies and not allow them to be intimidated. Al Qaeda demonizes America and the West and threatens Muslims who wish to achieve change without resorting to terrorism. We need to provide reassurance and incentives to Muslims affirming that nonviolent reform will ultimately lead to a more peaceful existence for everyone.
–Rita Katz is the director of the nonprofit SITE Institute, based in Washington, D.C. and author of Terrorist Hunter. Josh Devon is a senior analyst at the SITE Institute.